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Teaching and Teacher Education 54 (2016) 54e64

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Teaching and Teacher Education


journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/tate

To what extent does problem-based learning contribute to students'


professional identity development?
Chin Pei Tan a, *, 1, H.T. Van der Molen b, H.G. Schmidt b
a
b

Centre for Educational Development, Republic Polytechnic, 9 Woodlands Avenue 9, S738964, Singapore
Faculty of Social Sciences, Erasmus University Rotterdam, P.O. Box 1738, 3000 DR, Rotterdam, The Netherlands

h i g h l i g h t s
 The Professional Identity Five-Factor (PIFF) construct is comprehensive.
 PBL contributes to students' professional identity development in four dimensions.
 A PBL curriculum must incorporate experience with the profession.

a r t i c l e i n f o

a b s t r a c t

Article history:
Received 12 March 2015
Received in revised form
13 November 2015
Accepted 16 November 2015
Available online 12 December 2015

This study applied a comprehensive professional identity development framework to understand how
problem-based learning (PBL) contributed to students' development. Data were collected at a polytechnic that prepares students in a wide range of professions using PBL as the baseline pedagogy. From
709 students, we obtained descriptions of signicant inuences at the polytechnic that helped them
understand what it meant to work in their chosen profession. Six educatorepractitioners were interviewed for their preferred teaching approaches that were inuenced by their professional learning
journeys. The key nding was: to comprehensively promote professional identity development, PBL has
to include experience with the profession.
2015 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Keywords:
Professional identity development
Problem-based learning (PBL)
Professional education
Professional identity ve-factor scale (PIFFS)
Experience with the profession

1. Introduction
To enable new practitioners to carry out their work competently,
their formal professional educational experiences should result in
the development of perspectives and approaches akin to the
experienced practitioner in the eld (Barnett & Coate, 2005;
Dall'Alba, 1993; Dall'Alba & Barnacle, 2007). New practitioners
have to be able to think and act appropriately in their professional
roles, meet the expectations of customers, be effective in working
with different stakeholders, and discerning in making judgments
about ethical issues. Such a transformation of vocational students
from layperson to new practitioner produces a professional identity

* Corresponding author.
E-mail
addresses:
tanchinpei2012@gmail.com,
gemiwot@yahoo.com.sg
(C.P. Tan).
1
Tan, Chin Pei is currently on a personal sabbatical and not afliated with an
institution.
http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2015.11.009
0742-051X/ 2015 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

characteristic of their profession.


Problem-based learning (PBL) originated in medical education
to enable a smoother transition of students into clinical education
at hospitals, and prepare them better for professional practice
(Barrows & Tamblyn, 1980; Boud & Feletti, 1998). PBL has also been
introduced to other areas of professional education such as business administration, engineering studies, law schools, leadership
education, nursing, social work and teacher education (Hung,
Jonassen, & Liu, 2008). Although there are studies that have provided some insights into how PBL inuenced professional identity
development in students, they were, however, conducted on a
particular module or programme preparing students for specic
professions (Dunlap, 2005; Elcin et al., 2006; Jones, Peiffer,
Lambros, & Eldridge, 2010; Macdonald & Isaacs, 2001). The lack
of a generalizable construct that represents professional identity
development has limited a more comprehensive study of the role of
PBL in the development of students' professional identity.
A framework derived from a recently developed professional

C.P. Tan et al. / Teaching and Teacher Education 54 (2016) 54e64

identity ve-factor scale (PIFFS) (Tan, Van der Molen, & Schmidt,
2015; Tan & Schmidt, 2012) can contribute to addressing this gap.
The PIFFS is a questionnaire constructed to measure professional
identity development and has been statistically validated for use in
professional education programmes across a wide range of professions, from pharmaceutical science and aerospace engineering
to arts management and game design (Tan et al., 2015; Tan &
Schmidt, 2012). The PIFFS is also not limited to the use of any
pedagogy. As such, the PIFF construct is expected to be generalisable across contexts.
1.1. Purpose of this study
The purpose of this study was to gain insights into the role of
PBL in students' professional identity development with the use of
the PIFF construct as a framework. We carried out the research at a
polytechnic in Singapore that has implemented PBL as its baseline
pedagogy. Data were collected from both students and educators. In
order to learn about the nature of the inuence of PBL, it was
considered in the context of other inuences, i.e. the research
participants were not directed to focus on the role and inuence of
PBL. This study would also not compare the strength of PBL with
other forms of pedagogy. Instead it focused on experiences that
were inuential for students and those that were attributable to
PBL.
We asked the students to indicate the signicant events that
helped them to understand about their future profession. Given
that professional education is the main gateway to formally introduce students to their respective professions, we expected the
students to relate events from their educational experiences. We
also expected them to mention the role of PBL that was the
dominant pedagogy at the polytechnic.
Educators play a key role in the delivery of professional education experiences. Of particular interest to us was the perspective of
educators who had practiced in the professional eld they were
preparing their students for. In this study, we refer to them as
educatorepractitioners. There were hardly any studies that had
sought to understand the inuence of these educatorepractitioners' personal professional learning journeys on their teaching
practices. Therefore, we also interviewed educatorepractitioners
from diverse elds for their perspectives on teaching practices that
were important to sufciently initiate students into the profession.
They were from the same polytechnic as the surveyed students.
In the following section, we will introduce considerations
behind professional identity as construed by the PIFFS, and describe
shortly PBL and the educational context in which the study took
place.
1.2. Professional identity development construct as measured by the
PIFFS
The self is naturally motivated to manifest itself in ways that are
personally meaningful and valued. The self with an authentic
professional identity will seek to perform competently and legitimately in the context of professional practice because it would be
meaningful to do so. Given that professional education prepares
students to become new practitioners, professional identity
development would be a desirable graduate outcome.
This, therefore, leads to the question: what are the factors in
professional education that contribute to the learning and development of such a self?
The professional roles that formal education seeks to prepare
students for are embedded in socio-cultural contexts. They have to
be acknowledged by the respective communities of practitioners
and accepted by the larger community within which they operate.

55

The cultural contexts are the respective communities of practitioners that share language, knowledge, skills, values and use of
resources that characterize their profession. Given the sociocultural context, it is thus inevitable that for students to qualify
to legitimately perform their future role, they need to be armed
with a recognized attainment of knowledge and skills relevant to
professional practice. This, together with considerations and aspirations about how they will perform the role, and having experience with the profession will help them understand what it means
to be the professional and provide benchmarks for them to achieve.
In order for the primary self to assimilate the learning, the
student needs to nd the learning to be of personal value (Berger &
Luckmann, 1966/1991; Ryan & Deci, 2003). Without a preference
for the profession as future work, the learning is not relevant.
Without the condence that they will learn and perform the role
competently, students are not likely to persevere when faced with
learning challenges. There is a lack of personal value when they
don't care, and they won't succeed anyway.
We believe that the above ideas contribute to the development
of the professional self with the commitment to perform competently and legitimately in the context of professional practice. The
PIFF construct is based on these key ideas from common sense, and
the research literature on professional identity development and
motivation for learning. We will elaborate on each of these ve
factors in the construct: (1) knowledge about professional practices, (2) having the professional as a role model, (3) experience
with the profession, (4) preference for a particular profession, and
(5) professional selfeefcacy.
The rst factor, knowledge about professional practices, refers to
the knowledge students have about their future profession. This
includes the nature of the work, scope of responsibilities and outcomes the professional has to be accountable for, as well as the
norms and standards of practice (Buyx, Maxwell, & Schone-Seifert,
2008; Cooke, Irby, & O'Brien, 2010; Dall'Alba, 2009; Monrouxe,
2010; Sheppard, Macatangay, Colby, & Sullivan, 2009; Sullivan,
Colby, Wegner, Bond, & Shulman, 2007).
The second factor, having the professional as a role model, refers
to the extent to which students have access to professionals as role
models to look up to and learn from (Ajjawi & Higgs, 2008; Beckett
& Gough, 2004; Timmerman, 2009). Learning from role models
should be an active process, where students are engaged in
learning to think, reason and act like the professional. Students'
thinking and reasoning can be shaped by the feedback and critique
from role models (Ajjawi & Higgs, 2008; Beckett & Gough, 2004).
Furthermore, if they have more than one role model, students can
explore different provisional selves, and make choices about the
kind of professional they want to become (Ibarra, 1999).
The third factor is experience with the profession. Experience in
the profession is dened as authentic contact with clients in a
professional context that enables students to learn about the professional practice and the role of the professional (Dornan & Bundy,
2004). They provide opportunities for students to reconcile what
they have learnt in the classroom. Given students have not graduated and might have difculties being accepted as full participants or full members in the profession, they also will not have
experienced yet the responsibility and accountability of the professional role (Lave & Wenger, 1991). They may act more like observers instead. Experience with the profession would thus be more
appropriate than experience in the profession to describe their
involvement in the profession and extend the authentic contact
beyond clients to professionals and industry-related activities.
The fourth factor is preference for a particular profession.
Studies in motivation have shown that when students personally
identify with what they are learning e and hence experience
greater autonomy in their learning e they are more likely to work

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C.P. Tan et al. / Teaching and Teacher Education 54 (2016) 54e64

harder, enjoy school more, and cope better with failures (Jang,
Reeve, Ryan, & Kim, 2009; Ryan & Connell, 1989; Ryan & Deci,
2003; Vansteenkiste, Zhou, Lens, & Soenens, 2005). A strong preference for a particular profession would facilitate the focus and
commitment in learning, and as a result contribute to the development of a professional identity.
The fth factor is professional self-efcacy. This refers to an
individual's beliefs that he or she can really succeed in the profession. Perceived self-efcacy was dened by Bandura (1982) to be
judgments of how well one can execute courses of action required
to deal with prospective situations (Bandura, 1982, p. 122). Selfefcacy research in education has suggested that such personal
beliefs inuence students' decisions to successfully complete their
tasks. Students with higher self-efcacy show more perseverance
to full their tasks (Bandura & Schunk, 1981; Multon, Brown, &
Lent, 1991).
In summary, the above are the ve factors in the PIFF construct
that contribute to the professional identity development of the self,
committed to perform competently and legitimately in the context
of the professional practice.
1.3. What is PBL?
The aim of PBL is to facilitate students to learn in ways that
mirror professional practice (Barrows & Tamblyn, 1980). In PBL, a
feature is the use of problem triggers placed in a context such as a
medical phenomenon, like hepatitis. Small groups of students work
on the problem together: (1) they analyse the problem, (2) identify
learning issues for developing an adequate explanation for the
phenomenon, (3) follow up with research, and (4) prepare their
explanations. When required, they would also determine the
course of treatment, action or solution that best addresses the
phenomenon. So in PBL, students are rst presented the problem to
be diagnosed and then solved through learning. This way, not
only do students gain knowledge about professional practice, they
also have the opportunity to begin thinking like the professional
presented with a context to deal with.
The role of the tutor is to provide guidance for students' learning
process: (1) activate prior knowledge, (2) search and process relevant information, and (3) prepare the best response to the given
problem (Norman & Schmidt, 1992; Hmelo-Silver, 2004). In this
way, students are supported to take greater ownership of their
learning, and develop the capacity to be more self-directed. Having
a stronger sense of autonomy can contribute to their preference for
the profession. An enhanced ability for learning can have a positive
inuence on their sense of professional self-efcacy.
In general, PBL seems to lack experience with the profession. In
this PIFF factor, authentic contact with the clients, or the profession
and industry form part of the learning experience; PBL implemented in the classroom may be limited in that respect.
1.4. Educational context
This research was carried out at a polytechnic in Singapore
where a student population of about 14,000 students was being
prepared in a broad range of professions. Students were enrolled in
38 different diploma programmes delivered by six schools and a
centre (i.e. School of Engineering, School of Applied Science, School
of Health, Sports and Leisure, School of Hospitality, School of Infocommunications Technology, School of Technology for the Arts, and
Centre for Enterprise and Communication).
Schmidt, Van der Molen, Winkel, and Wijnen (2009) identied
three main types of PBL implemented in the world, each with a
different intent and emphasis for the use of PBL. Type 1 refers to the
use of PBL to help students acquire content in a more relevant and

meaningful manner. Type 2 describes the use of PBL to enable


students to learn practical reasoning and problem solving skills.
Type 3 is the category of PBL delivered for helping students to
develop the capacity for self-directed learning. PBL when implemented in a comprehensive manner, such as at the research site, is
inclusive of all three types.
The PBL structure implemented at the polytechnic is a one-day,
one problem approach (Yew & O'Grady, 2012). Each class consists of
twenty-ve students. The lessons for each module take place once a
week over a fteen-week semester. Both formative and summative
assessments for the learning process (problem solving approach
and skills, self-directedness in learning) and acquisition of knowledge have been implemented at the polytechnic to provide
adequate feedback for student learning. The main exceptions to the
use of the PBL approach are practical skills modules, which require
the demonstration and safe use of equipment (e.g. use of lighting
equipment in theatre management), and practicum modules where
students learn in a simulated work environment that serves real
clients (e.g. the restaurant service and culinary skills in the hospitality industry). PBL is also not practiced at internships that are part
of various diploma programmes.
Similar to PBL in general, PBL at the polytechnic does not have
authentic interaction with clients, professionals and the industry as
a specic characteristic. Thus, experience with the profession is not
expected to feature much, or at all in PBL's contribution to professional identity development at the research site.
2. Method
2.1. Participants
Data
were
collected
educatorepractitioners.

among

students

and

2.1.1. Students
We obtained responses from 709 students enrolled in 36 out of
38 diploma programmes offered by all six schools and a centre at
the polytechnic. These students were enrolled in diploma programmes relevant to their future work. Table 1 shows examples of
the diploma programmes offered by the respective schools and the
corresponding types of professions students were prepared for.
2.1.2. Educatorepractitioners
This study applied purposive sampling or criterion-based selection (Denzin & Lincoln, 2000; Merriam, 2009) to identify the
participants who could provide relevant and rich information.
Seven interviewees were identied based on these
considerations:
a. They have had experiences in the professional practice they
were preparing their students for.
b. There was evidence or recognition of their competence in their
respective profession (e.g. given the best trainee award, a
member of the judging panel at regional or international competitions, established a presence in the local theatre scene, work
published in international magazines, and awarded a scholarship by the employer organization).
c. They have had recent experiences in the professional practices
(dened in this study as no more than three years prior to the
interview for this study).
Of the seven identied academic staff, six conrmed their
participation. When approached, the seventh educatorepractitioner was leaving for another organisation within the next two
weeks and was unable to make time to participate. The six

C.P. Tan et al. / Teaching and Teacher Education 54 (2016) 54e64

57

Table 1
Examples of the diplomas and the corresponding types of professions students were being prepared for.
School

Diplomas

Types of professions

Centre for culture &


communicationa
School of applied
sciences

Diploma in communication and


information design
Diploma in pharmaceutical sciences
Diploma in biomedical sciences

Journalists, Copy Editors, Public Relations Executives, Junior Advertising Executives

Pharmaceutical Technicians & Assistants.


Biomedical Sales & Marketing, Marketing specialists, Sales & Marketing executives. Laboratory
Technicians, Medical Technologist/Laboratory Technologist, Junior Technologists.
School of engineering Diploma in supply chain management Ofcers or Executives in Logistics, Transportation, Planning, Purchasing, or Inventory Management.
Diploma in aerospace avionics
Aircraft Engine Inspectors, Quality Engineers/Auditors, Senior Technicians, Quality Assurance Inspectors.
Outdoor Adventure Specialists
School of sports, health Diploma in outdoor & adventure
Health Promotion Specialists, Physical Activity & Fitness Leaders, Patient Health Educators, Public Health
& leisure
learning
Diploma in sports & exercise sciences Executives, Health Research Assistants.
School of InfoDiploma in business applications
Web Developers, Junior Business Consultants/Analysts, Customer Service Executives, Application Support
communication
Diploma in information technology
Analysts, Software Engineers.
Network Engineers & Administrators, Wireless Engineers & Application Developers, IT Security
Administrators & Specialists.
School of hospitality
Diploma in customer relationship and Account & Relationship Executives, Sale & Marketing Executives, Customer Service Executives, Contact
Centre Service Executives.
service management
Business Development Ofcers, Tourism Service Ofcers.
Diploma in hotel and hospitality
Junior Executives in Hospitality, Hotel, Clubs & Resorts, Restaurants & Entertainment Spots, Theme Parks
management
& Attractions, Events Management.
School of technology for Diploma in new media
Designers, Producers in Advertising, Marketing & Public Relations, Web Design & Development.
the arts
Diploma in game design
Game Designers, Game Level Designers, Associate Producers, Games Quality Assurance Testers.
Note. Content extracted from Republic Polytechnic Diplomas Brochures 2010.
a
The Centre for Culture and Communication is now part of the Centre for Enterprise and Communication.

participants were full-time faculty members. They had joined the


polytechnic directly from their respective professions and had been
in the full-time position for an average of 18.5 months, ranging
from three months to three years. They came from ve distinctively
different industries: spa, theatre, journalism, outdoor and adventure learning and aerospace engineering. The educatorepractitioners from the theatre, and outdoor and adventure learning
professions were maintaining some form of professional practice in
addition to their full-time work as educators.
2.2. Data collection

hour. The second round of interviews that ranged from 20 min to


45 min was carried out after the rst set of interviews were transcribed and analysed. The purpose of the second interview was to
clarify responses from the rst interview.
The interviews were anchored by two key questions: (1) What
led you to teach in professional education? and (2) What were the
inuences from your own professional learning journey that had an
impact on the approach you use to prepare students for the profession? The purpose of the questions was to allow the participants
to recall their transition into professional education and make the
links between what they did in class and why they did it as a result
of their own experiences.

2.2.1. Procedure and material for the survey


Each academic year consisted of two 15-week semesters. In the
Academic Year 2011 and nearing the end of Semester 1 in Week 13,
all students were emailed an invitation to participate in the online
Professional Identity survey as an extra-curricular activity. Not only
was it highlighted to the students as an the opportunity for their
reection on their learning, they were also informed that their
responses would contribute to research on how students were
learning at the institution. At the polytechnic, students were expected to participate in a minimum number of extra-curricular
activities during the course of their education, the fullment of
which would be indicated in their transcripts. The survey was
available for voluntary participation for a week.
The data used in this study were students' responses to an openended question: What were the signicant events, or incidents,
that helped you to really get an idea of what it means to work in
your chosen profession? Students were encouraged to elaborate
enough to meet a minimum required number of words for their
response to be counted towards completed participation in the
extra-curricular activity. The quantitative data, collected at the
same time, have been reported elsewhere (Tan et al., 2015; Tan,
2014).

2.3.1. Coding and reporting of results


The PIFF construct was used as a framework to analyse the data.
In the framework, the factors would be referred to as dimensions.
We used the description of the PIFF construct in Section 1.2 as a
guide to code the data collected from both students and educatorepractitioners. Each description of incident or event could be
coded for more than one dimension. The exemplars would, however, clearly show the dominating dimension. For instance,
although PBL enabled knowledge about professional practices to be
gained through regular encounters with problem triggers and real
world examples, such knowledge was also gained from (1) having
the professional as a role model, and through (2) experiences with
the profession. The following are verbatim examples for (1) and (2):

2.2.2. Interview data


The data from the educatorepractitioners were collected between September 2012 and March 2013 via two rounds of semistructured interviews. All the sessions were voice-recorded and
transcribed. The rst round of interviews ranged from 45 min to an

I was nally able to appreciate the service staff in restaurants and


hotels. Compared to before, I now know the pain and the process
they had to go through just to make sure the guests were satised
with everything and their expectations met. They were responsible
for so many things. [Student 750].

2.3. Analysis

Another event would be the eld trip to Marina Bay Sands. Being
able to observe the staff doing their job. Observing their grooming
standards, the way they dealt with guests and their attitude while
they were working even when guests were not around. [Student
516].

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C.P. Tan et al. / Teaching and Teacher Education 54 (2016) 54e64

Given the large amount of student data, they were then further
grouped under short descriptors corresponding to each dimension.
The data in each dimension were also scanned for any mention of
PBL.
The results section will report for each dimension, the consolidated perspectives (i.e. both students' and educatorepractitioners)
of the role of PBL, the essential PBL features and complementary
features that promote the professional identity development in
students. The representative verbatim responses from the students
are displayed in Tables 2e5. The key phrases related to the teaching
approaches shared by the educatorepractitioners are in bold.
The exemplar verbatim responses of both students and educatorepractitioners have been edited to improve readability.
2.3.2. Inter-rater reliability
A colleague of the researchers who was not part of the team was
approached to analyse twenty percent of the survey and interview
data to compare for any differences in the interpretation of the data
using the PIFF construct. There were no disagreements in the
interpretation.
3. Results
In the student data, it was found that there was no mention of
PBL in the dimension, experience with the profession. From the
educatorepractitioner data, PBL was only mentioned by one
interviewee in the context of aerospace engineering in professional
self-efcacy and preference for a particular profession. Given these
observations, the results will report the inuence of PBL from the
students' perspectives and the teaching approaches from the
perspective of the educatorepractitioners that may, or may not be
peculiar to PBL. This will provide the basis for the discussion on the
inuence of PBL in students' professional identity development (as
experienced by the students), and inform us on the inuential
approaches (as experienced by the educatorepractitioners) that are
not unique to PBL and are complementary to PBL.

could also now make informed decisions of which publication they


could target to get published, and how they could pitch their stories
to the editors.
Beyond learning the different types of knowledge and skills
used in the industry, students could also benet from gaining an
overview of professional practices. The aim was to support students for a more holistic learning experience: to gain insights into
their future work, and how their contributions affected the overall
product. In R's (Journalism) module about feature writing and
editorial work, the students experienced the full cycle of producing
a feature article. They were given an assignment to do on an individual basis (instead of a typical collaborated learning product in
PBL) and which, in professional practice, was carried out by a team
of different professionals:
Each week focused on a different part of the process of getting
published. The rst week was to understand what a feature
piece was, the second week about planning for a story, the third
week on carrying out research, and the fourth week on conducting interviews. Each new part built on the previous week's
work, and then at the end of the fth week they went to press
e they did the design and layout, and they submitted the work.
These are good broad strokes for them to see the whole production chain from the concept to the nished product. In
future, for most of them, they would be involved only in parts of
it because not everybody's gonna be a writer or designer,
photographer
Educatorepractitioners bring with them insights about the
industry they can share with the students. Another example from R
(Journalism) illustrates this:
Many students enter the diploma programme with aspirations
to publish in mass publications. They are unaware of trade
publications that present greater potential for career development. They don't realise that at that level (mass publications),
it's a dime a dozen and the remuneration is actually quite, quite
low and where the money really is, it's in trade publications or
even business-to-business communications.

3.1. Knowledge about professional practices


From the students' perspective, PBL presented the range of
scenarios students could encounter in their professional life. They
got an idea of the scope and nature of the work, and learnt about the
different aspects of professional work, including the types of risks
and responsibilities involved, and consequences of decisions and
actions made. The examples given by students are in Table 2.
From the educatorepractitioner's perspective, it was pertinent
to introduce through the curriculum, commonly used terms,
documents, and systems in the industry. For example, in journalism, the concept of the rate card was incorporated into the
curriculum to ensure that students were aware of how they could
access the online published prole of actual publications. Besides
having a real world resource to draw on for their learning, students

Such information enables students to identify personal


learning goals and opportunities to prepare themselves for
future work. Compared with having limited options, they can now
become more active in exploring and developing their career
options. R's (Journalism) observations in his previous role as editor and mentor give us an idea of how students benet: I have
seen this trend: if the young writer comes in predisposed to
reading good content and familiar with the subject matter we
specialise in, they hit the ground running, and not much mentoring is needed.
Those with a broad base of reading adapt very quickly, he
added. He recollected his own experience at university: Before I
started school in Texas, they mailed us this big brochure and it was

Table 2
Descriptions of the responses related to knowledge about professional practices.
Description

Examples of verbatim responses

1. Aspects of professional In one of the modules, I learnt to work with IT systems. In different problems, we were asked to go through the system, use and explore the system
practices
see how the system could benet companies. We could use different criteria for different type of person, job, etc. When I start work in my chosen
profession in the future, I might be working with such an IT system or act as a consultant for the system. [Student 103]
2. Scope and nature of the Problems that were given to us at every lesson helped me better understand the job scope of a Public Relations Ofcer. [Student 237]
work
Personally, I have never worked in the IT industry and I have no clue how things work in the industry. But the daily problem statement provides us
with possible scenarios we may face in the future. For instance, in the latest problem in my database module, we actually learnt about the possible
consequences of losing thousands of dollars every hour if we do not perform our tasks correctly and properly. [Student 442]

C.P. Tan et al. / Teaching and Teacher Education 54 (2016) 54e64

59

Table 3
Descriptions of the responses related to having the professional as a role model.
Description

Examples of verbatim responses

1. Acting like the professional to meet I am in my second year, taking the modules that were tailored to meet the needs of our diploma and the industry that we would
expectations
possibly be working in. The problem given every week for every lesson is based on what might or have already happen in real life.
Thus, they are all very realistic. We also need to approach and solve it like we are doing this for real. These drills denitely helped
me to know more about what is expected of me and what I have to do when faced with such situations in the real world. [Student
525]
2. Feedback and critique from facilitator There was one incident where I got feedback from my facilitator about my team mates' evaluation of my performance. I was
and team mates
disappointed that they gave me such bad remarks because I couldn't get my idea and thoughts across to them when we discussed the
day's given problem statement. Throughout the day, I was a liability to my team because I couldn't communicate properly and I was
lost. This made me realise that in the future IF there is a probability that I may have to work on a project with a team, I have to
improve myself and be a better team player even if I do not like working with some people. Working in a team helps me to be
prepared for future team work etc. [Student 882]
One of the modules taught me about designing quality work. It taught me design principles, and to accept critique gracefully. In the
working environment, people would have different ideas and they could be harsh about not liking something so having my
classmates to critique my work would in a way prepare me to take on critiques and not let them affect me personally. I know that the
critiques in the work place regarding my work would be more intense and different from those given in class. The lessons would
mentally prepare me to accept them and improve my work. [Student 163]

Table 4
Descriptions of the responses related to professional self-efcacy.
Description

Examples of verbatim responses

1. PBL: Knowing how to approach The modules also taught me how to approach potential problems in the future, so that I'll be better prepared.[Student 433]
problems
2. PBL: Practice acting like the I am in my second year, taking the modules that were tailored to meet the needs of our diploma and the industry that we would possibly be
professional
working in. The problem given every week for every lesson is based on what might or have already happen in real life. Thus, they are all very
realistic. We also need to approach and solve it like we are doing this for real. These drills denitely helped me to know more about what is
expected of me and what I have to do when faced with such situations in the real world. [Student 525]
3. PBL: collaborative learning
This made me realise that in the future IF there is a probability that I may have to work on a project with a team, I have to improve myself and
be a better team player even if I do not like working with some people. Working in a team helps me to be prepared for future team work etc.
[Student 882]

Table 5
Descriptions of the responses related to preference for a particular profession.
Description

Examples of verbatim responses

1. Enjoyed learning from solving problems Denitely the modules that I took, which is Digital Audio & Video, as well as Digital Illustrations. After going through these 2
related to the industry
modules, I realised that I actually enjoy doing the daily problems, and would hope to be able to work in a related eld. [Student
225]

called the undergraduate unrequired reading list which was a series of books that would be very useful for the undergraduate to
read. They give you a signicant advantage actually, because these
are books that broaden your mind. This inuenced him to give a
group of year one students he was mentoring the Diploma in
mass communication unrequired media list which is a series of
movies and books for them to watch and read.
In the educatorepractitioners view, the learning environment,
too, made a difference in shaping students' perspective. Besides
typical classrooms, learning laboratories set up to simulate the work
environment provided students with a good notion of how systems
worked, such as stock taking and handling of goods in a warehouse.
The spa laboratory (spa lab) was another example: it was designed
for a calm and therapeutic ambience, and furnished like a typical
spa with furniture made of wood and piped-in soothing music. M
(Spa) shared how the teaching staff used the spa lab to help students learn:
How we get them ready is with the use of a spa lab, which is a
real life setting of a spa. The module has been created to provide
them with the skills to be able to walk straight into a spa and
know how to handle a customer complaint, how to check in a
guest, check out the guest, meeting, greeting, sales, um, looking
after a guest when they arrive, making sure they ll up the risks
form. So the module makes them workplace ready.

Students can be supported in such environments to learn


useable knowledge to apply in their future work.
Practical knowledge necessarily involved knowing standards of
practice in the industry, and understanding the desired attributes
that can bring about success in meeting these standards. A's
(Aerospace) response illustrated this:
We try to reinforce in our students the issue of attitude and
discipline because the consequences of their actions can be very
disastrous. We always explain to them that in aviation, creativity
is not something that we want. At the end of the day it is all
about safety. Creativity may be required at the design engineering level, but not in the MRO (maintenance, repair and
operations) because if your creativity causes you to short change
processes and put people's lives at stake, then it's denitely not
what we want. Follow instructions. Follow what is required. We
need them to appreciate that this is how the profession
operates.
In a more concrete way of achieving industry standards, a
module in a diploma programme incorporated lessons related to
achieving the Level 1 Climbing certication. Such lessons were not
conducted using PBL. S (Outdoor & Adventure Learning) revealed
that these lessons provided students with an edge to join

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C.P. Tan et al. / Teaching and Teacher Education 54 (2016) 54e64

companies with climbing activities for part-time assignments,


internship or even a full-time position after they graduated. These
companies would not need to spend time and resources to have
them trained in these specic areas before employing them.
3.2. Having the professional as a role model
The baseline PBL pedagogy provided students with the regular
practice of learning to be the practitioners, to solve problems and
complete assignments related to professional practice. Some students reported getting a sense of what it took to deliver work by
given deadlines. The regular feedback they obtained from the facilitators and their peers gave them the experience of handling
critiques to improve the quality of their work and their contribution
to the teamwork. Through these, students developed an idea of
expectations of their performance in the future. See Table 3 for their
verbatim responses.
The educatorepractitioners in this study saw themselves as
being responsible for successfully inducting their students into the
profession. Especially where the leading professionals were not
proled in the mass media and were only known within the industry, the educatorepractitioners were likely the students' rst
point of contact with the profession and industry. Besides being
their role models, the educatorepractitioners also felt that it was
important for students to actively model on the role of the
practitioner as they went about their learning. They saw their
feedback as important prompts to shape their students' perspective
and approaches to be aligned with professional values. Supported
by the institution's assessment policies, the educatorepractitioners
were in the position to assess their students in professionalism,
critical engagement with the content, and reective practice. An
example from M (Spa),
Let's just say they do something on customer complaints. In the
morning we talk about the effect of having a customer
complaint: what they value about customer service, what does
it mean, what are the behaviours, and what's the impact if we
don't do anything? In the afternoon, we do scripts of the right
things to do. I give them a handout and it would be some cues
about step one on posture, eye contact, then, maybe step two
would be to listen to what the guests say.
They are involved in the process of writing the script. Then I
would act it out with someone. Someone would be the guest
and I would be the spa manager or supervisor, whoever the
person is supposed to deal with the complaint. And we would go
through an exercise. We would try with different ways.
They practice with other people, taking turns with different
scenarios. We watch them, and we check for, rather than the
normal rubrics, we have an additional rubrics that looks at
things in a practical environment like their smile, their posture,
their vocabulary, their timings, whether they are following the
SOPs (the standard operating procedures).
Z's (Theatre) approach was to throw curve balls at her students to challenge them to think quickly on their feet. She found
herself trying to balance between inundating them with her experiences and getting them to learn to think for themselves:
What I try to do in class, what I try to prepare my students for,
would be to be very quick thinking, and to be prepared as much
as possible. Sometimes it's just like, oh no, there are so many
things to say about this oh no, oh no, I got to hold back to
get them thinking, to push a bit more, and the fact is that it's
very difcult. The reality of it is that in the theatre world they

would be swallowed whole. You know they will not survive


after one production.
Being able to think on their feet was a recurring theme. In the
aerospace related diplomas, students only gained troubleshooting
skills of an aircraft engineer when they were in the apprenticeship
programme in the industry. Their polytechnic education prepared
them to be more ready to think on their feet to perform competently, and learning troubleshooting skills in the process: One
good thing about ODOP (one day, one problem) is that we have
taught our students to think on their feet right now, rather than do
it later. I think that is quite important. A (Aerospace).
Having the professional as a role model inevitably involved an
alignment with professional values and ethics that were
important in the profession. S's (Outdoor & Adventure Learning)
approach vividly illustrates this: We tell them: just look at the way
we dress, look at the way we conduct ourselves. When we say we
have to wear a helmet, we're the rst to wear a helmet. The students were reminded about their future professional role. He would
say this to them:
Someday you're going to stand before students in my shoes and
what happens if your students say this to you, Instructor, you
said we must wear helmets but you don't wear one yourself. So
this whole idea of having to become a role model is instilled in
the students right from the start. You have to wear shoes for
your students, why? Next time if your students arrive wearing
slippers, are you going to let them climb the rock wall?
He added:
As outdoor practitioners, we take care of our equipment very
well because we use them very heavily. So we instill in our
students about how to take care of their equipment, and how to
maintain their equipment. Every time they return from their
training, the rst thing I make them do is to take care of their
equipment before they cool down and drink water. All these are
part of work ethics that outdoor practitioners pick up along the
way. We learned from experience because we didn't have formal
education about these things. Now, we are passing on the good
practices to the next generation.
The practice of good work ethics helped to manage the risks and
hazards associated with the nature of the activities and the use of
equipment in outdoor and adventure education.
There were limitations to the inuence of role models for professional practice at the polytechnic. A (Aerospace) elaborated on
the difference between school and the requisite industry apprenticeship scheme:
The two years' of experience is your actual experience, and
not from the cases that you read. You see an actual aircraft being
operational.
We have to internalize the troubleshooting skills. We actually
have to write down all the different tasks we have gone through
and then at the end of three years of the apprenticeship
including the two years of experience, we'll submit the logbook
to CAAS (the aviation governing body).
He elaborated on the oral examination by the governing body:
So they may say: You have done this before right, so how about
if this, and this happens, what will be your course of action? If
you have not participated in the problem solving you'd not be
able to answer. Then they would say: So have you given thought

C.P. Tan et al. / Teaching and Teacher Education 54 (2016) 54e64

that if this were to happen, what will happen? If you don't


know anything about the system, if he created another scenario,
you wouldn't be able to respond right?

3.3. Professional self-efcacy


The baseline PBL pedagogy provided students with practice in
learning how to approach problems drawn from real life scenarios,
work on them like a professional would, and learn from their mistakes to make better professional decisions. The regularity of
engaging in these activities using the one-day one-problem
approach at the polytechnic helped them feel more condent about
being able to meet expectations at work. For students who struggled with being a good team player, or who were shy, they had the
opportunities to learn to overcome these in the collaborative
learning environments in PBL. See Table 4 for the verbatim
exemplars.
The educatorepractitioners approaches for helping their students develop condence involved not only situated learning but
also iterations of practice with different scenarios and assignments.
The latter is akin to deliberate practice. Deliberate practice has
been considered to be an important dimension for expertise
mer,
development (Ericsson, 2004; Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Ro
1993). Beyond the opportunity to apply, students learned through
feedback and critique by peers and their tutors or facilitators. They
developed their own personal practical knowledge about dealing
with professional contexts. The following extracts from M (Spa) and
Z (Theatre) provide some insights.
M (Spa) felt it was important for students to be familiar with
delivering on general expectations:
Obviously there are some key things to follow, such as being
empathetic, nodding your head, and then there are other things
that they just don't know: what the guest would say, so they
would have to think on their feet. They get familiar through
practicing and handling a complaint with someone else who
isn't like their best buddy. And then we just keep rotating
around so that the different scenarios help them with their
condence. That practical exercise helps them to be brave when
they do their IIP (Industrial Internship Programme). I feel
condent that on Monday when my students start their IIP, and
they're plonked at the front desk, when a guest comes in, they
know how to meet and greet them. They may obviously be a
little bit nervous, and they won't necessarily know any unique
things particular to that spa, but they will be able to say, good
morning . can I assist you? They will have a foundation to
work from.
Z (Theatre) cited her own educational experiences that inuenced her development of a practicum module on theatre practice.
Throughout her two-year theatre studies in junior college, she was
required to work on several projects to experience different professional practices. These became the ground for her iterative
learning of putting together the different components of theatre
practice:
it was like from Day 1, ok, we had workshop training, now
you're going to do your rst project, a monologue. You're
going to act on your own. You're going to self-direct. Ok, the
next one will be a dialogue, you're going to work with a
partner, you can use any space you want, and you can think
about this, you can think about that. Then the last year was a
group work.

61

Z (Theatre) felt that the practicum learning was crucial in


contributing to students' development of professional self-efcacy,
as it had for her: They need to have this safe ground to make all
these mistakes, to learn and to see what else they could do before
they start work. I felt that when I was in junior college the experience gave me a lot of condence.
Finally, but not the least, R (Journalism) observed that students
could begin building their portfolio by publishing, and noted of
some who have work published already this was before they
were going out on internship, so it looked very good. They were
competent, had the basic skills. They knew how to do research.
They knew how cite. Their work had no grammatical or major
spelling errors. They were good enough to hit industry.
3.4. Preference for a particular profession
The profession-specic modules were opportunities for students to actively explore their interest for a particular profession. As
a result, they discovered if they enjoyed solving problems related to
that profession, and were interested in the role they simulated in
class. Table 5 shows an example. The specialization modules helped
them to think through the potential tracks they could pursue after
they graduate. Along the same vein, elective modules served as
opportunities for them discover their interests and make more
informed decisions about their career paths.
An emotional connection would be helpful in motivating students, as inferred from R's (Journalism) reection on the potential
usefulness of eld trips such as to media companies. He suggested
that: The buzz, with breaking news especially, might reinvigorate
the ones who are, dead. You happen to be the company that's
breaking the news, it's very exciting. He recognized that not all of
his students were hungry to be published which he had observed
to be the key dimension distinguishing the successful writers from
the rest.
Both R (Journalism) and Z (Theatre) believed that students
developed their interests from dealing with subject matters or issues that mattered to them. R (Journalism) elaborated on the
approach he had taken: Within the curriculum we create the space
for them. We try to nudge them to something they might be
interested in. So it is a key consideration for planning or developing
your curriculum to keep it broad enough and yet have the ability to
help the students build or create depth and quality.
Said Z (Theatre), I advise them to work where their heart is, to
go through with that, because I think with theatre it takes a lot of
work. The process is just very, very painstaking and so especially
when I supervise, or when I advise, I stray away from the whole
this is what you gotta do, because this is what it is. But I go with
what you want to do at the end of the day.
A (Aerospace) felt that PBL helped students to develop their
interest and directed their attention to what they needed to learn,
Solving problems helps to capture student interest because
we're talking about technical things, how to do it. It helps them to
appreciate the fact that if I need to solve this problem, I need to
have a certain level of prociency. The passion for the aircraft was
important: We always tell the students: you need to be passionate
and you need to be committed. Once you have a bit of passion,
you are willing to accept certain peculiarities about the industry.
Sometimes, students need help to make realistic decisions about
their preferences for particular professions:
Different industries operate differently. Maybe if they don't feel
good about it, we tell them: Maybe you want to reconsider. It is
the truth. You don't want to be trapped in an industry which you
don't really like. What we found is that people in that situation,

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C.P. Tan et al. / Teaching and Teacher Education 54 (2016) 54e64

they always take the shortest route when things go tough and
that's not really something we want in the aviation industry. A
(Aerospace)
S (Outdoor & Adventure Learning) also shared what his students
conded:
After three years here, they realised that it's a lot of hard work
involved. You're out in the sun every day. You're away from
family most of the time. They realised that this was not what
they wanted to do. They wanted to pursue other things like
banking, teaching, different things.
When students were not enrolled in diplomas related to their
future work, Z (Theatre) encouraged them to make the most of their
learning; What I try to help them with, is to work towards that
dream. So I try to motivate them. I try to make them see the link
between what we're doing here and what aspects of it they can use
for later on For example, the skills that you get in theatre, you can
also use in teaching and managing events.
3.5. Experience with the profession
As mentioned at the beginning of this section, this dimension
did not have any PBL specic inuences reported by the students,
hence would include only the responses from the educatorepractitioners. They described two key aspects: (1) involvement
of clients in class assignments, and (2) support for internships. The
educatorepractitioners aimed to provide the necessary support to
help students learn as much as possible from their experiences.
R's (Journalism) students experienced producing work for a
real client. Not only did the students gain knowledge about professional practices through assigned roles and responsibilities in
teams, the experience also made possible an emotional connection
with work in the profession:
For the team project, they take on specic roles The facilitator
takes on the role of the managing editor who is commissioning
the work, and the sub-editors and editors are responsible for
every aspect of the publication: from the proposal all the way to
the end product. We were also serving a real corporate client.
We found that the NGOs (non-governmental organisations) are
the ideal partners to have because they do worthy causes and
the kids also get a different form of learning. Students interviewed real workers in their context so it was very compelling.
On the last day of class they had to present to the client about
what changed them. Some of the girls were actually brought to
tears.
Z (Theatre) described more approaches that provided structured support for students learning to produce work for real
clients. One was in the form of a theatre practicum module:
so they are going to do productions from scratch. They are
separated into groups, and they are going to select a certain
performance interest group. Maybe wind symphony or what
they have here at the Cultural Centre. They are going to do a
production. Of music or theatres, or something. So, I'm like super excited about it!
Other forms of structured support were project assignments.
Such as students being required to watch a play and submit a review, and students having to volunteer in front-of-house services at
various arts venues with follow up reports about the experiences.
The nal-year projects in her school were linked to industry

partners. Further, Z (Theatre) had experienced students in her


classes who worked part-time in the profession and they sometimes pick up very bad habits, so that we have to unlearn and
relearn. She questioned their choices, I always asked them why
in order to help them to understand why alternative methods could
be better.
Internships for periods of up to six months were compulsory for
students in some diploma programmes. R (Journalism) elaborated
on the dimensions that would contribute to the success of an
internship:
whether the companies are ready to take interns, whether
they have a proper induction programme. It's also leveraged by
whether the students understand what the companies do
and whether it dovetails with the students' own goals; and the
need to pair the students with a mentor and to handhold them
through the process. To have proper checkpoints along the way,
I think it can be potentially very powerful.
For the aerospace-related diploma programme, students went
on internship either in the rst or second semester of their third
year, so if they had not experienced specialization modules related
to the work of the companies, pre-internship learning was arranged. On the other hand, students were likely to have gained
knowledge about professional practices during the period of their
internship that gave them an edge over their peers in class, In that
twenty weeks, they might have acquired some relevant knowledge
such that when they came back here (polytechnic) it became very
easy for them to understand, A (Aerospace). S (Outdoor &
Adventure Learning) shared a similar experience, We realised that
the students who returned from their Industry Immersion Programme were so much easier to handle in class because they understood why we nagged at them. The discussions were much more
vibrant because they had their own personal examples to give.
4. Discussion
4.1. Role of PBL in students' professional identity development
From the students' perspective, PBL does not feature in the
dimension experience with the profession. From the educatorepractitioners perspective, PBL is important in the context of
aerospace engineering in professional self-efcacy and preference
for a particular profession. The aerospace profession is also the only
one where students are being prepared to join the industry's
apprenticeship programme instead of the workplace. It seems,
therefore, that there are limitations to the role of PBL in inuencing
professional identity development, and PBL encompasses inuential characteristics that may not be unique to it and thus not
associated with it. The results in this study suggest how PBL can be
implemented in a more comprehensive manner in a professional
education programme to achieve desired professional identity
development outcomes.
What is the role of PBL in students' professional identity
development? The consolidated results showed the inuence of
PBL in four out of ve dimensions of the PIFFS construct: knowledge
about professional practices, having the professional as a role
model, professional self-efcacy and preference for a particular
profession. The exception was experience with the profession. This
is not surprising when we consider the original intent of PBL was to
prepare students for their clinical education (where they learn at
the workplace) and at the research site. PBL was also implemented
namely in non-practicum modules prior to learning at the workplace during internship or when they are employed after they
graduate.

C.P. Tan et al. / Teaching and Teacher Education 54 (2016) 54e64

However, Dornan and Bundy (2004) believed that early experiences would be complementary to any contextualising and
integrating effect of problem-based learning. Indeed from Diemers
et al. (2008) study, students made comparisons between learning
from paper, simulated and real patients, the last of which provoked
a strong motivation to study so as not appear incompetent. In a
study about medical education, Koens, Ten Cate, and Custers (2003)
suggested that for the students' interpretation of contextual information in each situation to be meaningful, it should include both
the semantic, as well as a commitment to resolve a medical problem and provide adequate care for the patient. In other words,
students must feel a sense of responsibility for patient outcomes.
4.2. A more comprehensive PBL for promoting professional identity
development
The data from the educatorepractitioners showed us examples
of how experience with the profession can be incorporated into
PBL, such as having students work on assignments for real clients.
The signicance of an authentic experience is the emotional
connection made between the students and the work. This contributes to the commitment of becoming the new professional self.
For example, empathy is more likely to happen when students
experience rst-hand the immediacy of situations and the impact
of their contribution in the real world. In one of the studies about
the impact of early experiences in medical education, tutors felt
that these early experiences taught students what it is like to feel
unwell and to recognise and value diversity, acknowledge patients' expertise, and respect condentiality (Dornan & Bundy,
2004, p. 4). Staff also reported that the students became more
aware of their future professional status, roles and responsibilities
(Diemers, Dolmans, Verwijnen, Heineman, & Scherpbier, 2008;
Dornan & Bundy, 2004).
Cox's 1999 example (in Edmond, 2001, p.256) of the impact of
laboratory simulation sums up the signicance of experience with
the profession on student learning:
Regarding use of laboratory simulation which, although it has its
place in the initial stages of learning psychomotor skills, cannot
replace the situated knowledge, the feedback, the innite variety and the moral and ethical elements of social responsibility
that can only be experienced in the real world.
When experience with the profession is integrated in a PBL
curriculum, a coherent alignment with desired professional values
and ethics throughout the programme can be designed for.
From the educatorepractitioners perspective, their preferred
teaching approaches to prepare students for work are not PBLfocused. Some of these approaches can be readily incorporated
into a PBL curriculum, such as the learning of common terms,
document and systems utilized in the industry. Some others such as
individual assignments may appear to be in conict with the
baseline pedagogy. This is not necessarily so because there is room
for variations within the pedagogy, and these have been implemented at the research site. The fundamental principle for the use
of a problem trigger for learning is to create the opportunity for
students to identify with the need to know and learn the intended
learning outcomes. Variations can be facilitated in various ways
such as getting the students to analyse a typical scenario in groups
and share relevant prior knowledge together as a class. The tutor
can follow up to deliver a short lecture and demonstrate a worked
example. Subsequent to this, students apply the learning in their
individual assignments. Selected completed work can be discussed
in class for further learning. In this way, collaborative learning is
incorporated at different and various stages; and not only can

63

students experience learning from variations in scenarios, they can


also be facilitated to think on their feet during the discussions about
the different scenarios.
Prescribing a single PBL model for a module and across all
modules in a professional educational programme may limit the
potential of PBL to maximize student learning. A comprehensive
implementation of PBL should instead be considered from the
perspective of the entire professional education programme.
4.3. Challenges and limitations
Implementing the teaching approaches and variations in PBL are
not without their challenges. Educatorepractitioners need to have
sufcient knowledge and skills to design and implement appropriate PBL models for the modules they handle. They need to balance providing experience with the profession with ensuring
adequate student learning of new content. They also need to
manage the need to give students the space to think, and learn from
their mistakes and the urge to tell them what they should, and
should not do.
Educatorepractitioners have to work with available resources
and within the constraints of their institutional context. Dornan
and Bundy (2004) found that staff were concerned about cost
and logistics in supporting authentic learning experiences. In this
current study, some of the educatorepractitioners appeared to
have found solutions to manage these. For example, instead of
organising additional learning programmes, they arranged for
students to learn content in their lessons through servicing real
clients from non-prot organisations or school performing groups.
Internships are not an instant panacea for experiences with the
profession. The educatorepractitioners may need to provide support for students to maximise their learning. There may be prerequisites students need to meet. Also, ideally the students have
developed learning strategies in class that can help them learn
more effectively in less structured learning environments like the
workplace where learning is opportunistic. Learning at the workplace is dependent on the situations that arise, the capacity of
students to observe and inquire, and the onsite supervisors to help
students to make sense of what is going on (Beckett & Gough,
2004).
In general, student learning is driven by assessment and thus an
institution's assessment policies and practices should shape, support and not undermine the desired professional identity development. Notwithstanding all efforts to promote student success
through enhancing their professional identity development, there
will inevitably exist a gap between the students' learning at the
polytechnic and their ability to perform independently and successfully in the workplace. They need to adapt to the new environment and its organizational culture, and to deal with the
demands of the job as a full-time staff member. There would be
new technology or equipment that could not be made available in
school for learning and practice. With the rapid expansion of
knowledge, technology and changes in the landscape of the profession, the new practitioners must be committed to continue to
learn, for competence and to develop their expertise. New practitioners who possess strong professional identities, with the
commitment to perform competently and legitimately, are more
likely to be driven to do so.
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